Online journalists (OK, us) are always banging on about the need to be treated with the same respect/disdain as print or broadcast reporters — no less legitimate and bound by the same set of expectations. But in Mexico they may be taking that concept too far…

Mexico has always been one of most dangerous places in the world for journalists, or anyone for that matter, who dared to report on or speak out against the drug cartels.

According to Reporters without Borders, 80 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000. Four journalists have been killed in the last month, including María Elizabeth Macías, the editor of a Nuevo Laredo newspaper.

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Maria was found decapitated with a handwritten message linking her murder — not to the coverage of the drug wars in her paper — but to her postings on social networks.

The cartels have moved online.

In our country, the biggest threat a commenter may face is moderation, in Mexico, it’s hanging.

On a September morning in the same town, Nuevo Laredo, situated just over the Texas border, the bodies of two residents were found strung by their arms and legs from a pedestrian overpass. The man and woman’s bodies both suggested signs of torture. The woman was disemboweled.

A message was left near their bodies:

“This will happen to all the internet snitches (Frontera al Rojo Vivo, Blog Del Narco, or Denuncia Ciudadano),”

and this:

“Be warned, we’ve got our eye on you. Signed, Z.”

No word yet on what the penalty for trolling is.

Z is most likely for Zeta, one of the biggest drug cartels in the country. Zeta are big on hanging their victims from overpasses, trees, you name it, but linking out to a website is new.

Wired is careful to stress that no one knows if the victims were targeted for participating in online discussions about the drug war or for using social media to tip off authorities about crimes (again brings new meaning to ensuring anonymity) but there’s no doubt that as Mexican papers have wound back coverage of the drug wars over the years for fear of reprisals, new media has stepped into the breach.

This puts an interesting spin on the recent debate around anonymity on the web, sparked for starters by behemoths like Google (Plus) and Facebook cracking down on pseudonyms and urging users to put a face to the (real) name. Jason Wilson wrote a piece for Crikey on the subject in August:

“The true distinction between privacy and anonymity from a users’ perspective is that privacy protection without anonymity relies on the goodwill of corporations and governments that have repeatedly demonstrated no such goodwill. In contrast, anonymity guarantees privacy and ensures the user can share as much or as little private information as they wish.

“For internet users in western countries facing corporate campaigns to take their personal information and governments keen to increase surveillance and control, it is an important difference. For internet users living under repressive regimes, it is potentially the difference between life and death.”

At least 40,000 people have died since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon’s term in December 2006 and his call to send the army to fight the cartels.

Hardly a week goes by without the new discovery of a shallow grave containing multiple bodies, very often headless ones.

In April authorities discovered more than 450 bodies buried in mass graves in the northern states of Durango and Taumalipas. (Reuters has a rundown of the worst atrocities committed since 2006).

In May, six headless bodies were dumped outside a high school in the city of Durango in northern Mexico and sprayed threatening messages on a nearby wall, just before students were due to put on a concert to celebrate Mother’s Day.

It’s in this environment of terror that civilians have taken to real-time reporting on platforms like Twitter. According to Wired, locals use Twitter to report trouble spots on the country’s northern highways or the locations of firefights between cartels and government security forces.

But, as ever with fast moving news on Twitter, there’s a risk that rumours can spread before being verified — at a very different cost to say, repeating celebrity death rumours on air Richard Wilkins style.

Parents in the city of Veracruz reacted to rumours via Twitter and Facebook that schools in the area had come under attack by gangs with abject panic. Many of them abandoned their cars in attempts to reach their children — over a dozen car accidents occurred — and as a result, two people were arrested and accused of “terrorism and sabotage.”

Dubbed the “Twitter Terrorists of Mexico” Gilberto Martinez Vera (@gilius_22) and Maria de Jesus Bravo Pagola (@MARUCHIBRAVO) are in jail on terrorism charges for starting the rumours. They face a maximum sentence of 30 years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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